Microsoft is busy pushing Minecraft as an educational tool prior to the release of the Minecraft Education Edition. But is Minecraft the answer to STEM education? Not by itself it is not.
The New York Times just ran an article titled The Minecraft Generation – How a clunky Swedish computer game is teaching millions of children to master the digital world. It’s an interesting read, but it’s fundamentally wrong.
Minecraft is certainly more educational than playing Counter Strike or World of Warcraft but it is not intrinsically teaching kids to master the digital world. The first example given in the article is the story of Jordan who uses the meanderings of a cow as an ersatz random number generator. That’s quite a clever solution in the context of the game – but only in the context of the game. Mastery would involve Jordan understanding that the cows meanderings were created by an algorithm that involves an actual random number generator modified to make a cow’s motions have some sense. Spending hours capturing a cow, making a pen, having the cow hit some random switches as it walks about is fun and creative but it’s not connected to the underlying real world. Making that connection would start us on the road to digital mastery.
There’s no question that Minecraft can teach you stuff and that playing a creative game is going to be more positive than a simplistic destructive game; but by itself working in the game environment does not translate into mastery of anything in the real world. There is also clearly the opportunity to do some truly sophisticated stuff in Minecraft that does teach mastery – people have built functioning computers for example – but the fact a couple of people do amazing things does not mean that’s what most people are doing. People have done astonishing things with LEGO blocks too, but the vast, vast majority of kids do not learn even the first engineering principles out of playing with LEGO.
As an educational tool Minecraft, like every other tool, depends on who is wielding it. A good teacher using Minecraft to draw lessons from the game experience that translate into the real world can make Minecraft into a great educational tool. But that’s not the same as a kids playing with it randomly. And the capacity to play the game is absolutely not digital mastery it’s yet another instance of kids working with the magic rather than creating the magic themselves.,
Similarly, the Minecraft Education Edition allows you to tour a virtual Pyramid of Giza or visit underground bunkers. With a teacher these experiences could be rich and useful. But to say that they will allow mastery of pyramid building is fatuous. It’s equally fatuous to think that using a cow to make random numbers connotes mastery of the digital world.
Minecraft is great fun, it’s a better thing for kids to be playing than a lot of other games, it can be educational – but don’t confuse any of that with it being a substitute for actual education.